A Little Bit of French History Finds its Way to Bostonadmin
A Little Bit of French History Finds its Way to Boston.
By Cal Dunagan, Editor-in-Chief
We love furniture history! For us, nothing tells a story better than an antique. It can be argued that master-crafted furniture is one of the most tangible connections we have to the past. So, when we caught wind of some obscure Boston lore sitting tucked away down the road, we jumped at the opportunity to bring it to you!
Our destination is the modern furniture shop City Schemes, just west past Conway Park Hubway Station in Somerville, MA. One of the first things you’ll notice as soon as you walk into the huge showroom at City Schemes, is that the store has fully embraced mid-century modern. And for those of us who bathe in the glory of mid-century living, this place is a real treat. But that’s not what we came for this time.
If you pay special attention while perusing the furniture, you’ll notice something a little out of place standing monolithically against the wall next to some very handsome leather loungers. It’s not easy to miss. The armoire is grand. Made of a rosy French walnut and inlayed with fruitwood, this meticulously crafted Armoire Louis XVI is something out of a time-capsule.
Luckily, this armoire has practical use—the staff at City Schemes uses it to hold the swatches and pattern samples for their custom-built furniture—so we’re allowed some intimate time going over all sharp angles and deep lines of history etched into the design of this armoire. At closer inspection, the skill of craftsmanship is obvious, and the brass fixtures are just tarnished enough to bring gravity to the age of the armoire, which the store owner estimates at just over two centuries! However, it isn’t the impressive age of this piece that originally brought us here, but rather who the piece supposedly belonged to. This is where the story gets juicy.
The owner of City Schemes found this Louie XVI Armoire nearly 30 years ago, on one of his many trips to tour the antiques of France. During one of these excursions he found a little known antique store tucked away in the south of Nice. As he was heading out of the shop, he noticed a massive armoire under a pile of boxes behind the register. When he asked the old lady behind the counter about the armoire he got a bit more than he bargained for.
She recounted the story of the original owner of the armoire, Countess Maria (Marie) Walewska, a Polish noblewoman who lived at the end of the 18th century. We did a bit of digging on this obscure woman from history.
Marie was born on December 7th 1786 to a wealthy noble family in Kiernozia, Poland. She married Count Athenasius Colonna-Walewski in 1805, a man forty years her senior. It is perhaps due to her noble status that she eventually rubbed elbows with Napoleon Bonaparte two years into his reign as Emperor of France in 1806. He was so entranced with her beauty that soon he asked her to be his mistress!
The affair was meant to be a secret one. Marie took up residence at the capital’s Royal Castle, and would drop in on the Emperor’s room at night, then sneak out in the morning. When Napoleon moved his headquarters to East Prussia she followed him there, but kept to her living-quarters the entire time out of fear that she would be discovered by Napoleon’s commanding officers, many of whom she knew and was related to. However, by the end of the year the relationship was no less than an open secret in the higher-circles of the noble class in Western Europe.
For the next four years, Marie followed Napoleon where he traveled and they eventually wound up in Vienna in 1809. It was here that Maria became pregnant. She was forced to move back home and gave birth to her second son, Alexandre Joseph, and her first son with Napoleon. Her husband, the elderly count Athenasius, took the boy in as his own.
After Vienna, Napoleon moved back to Paris, where Marie met him. But soon Napoleon grew cold toward Marie. It was during this time that Napoleon decided to divorce his current wife Joséphine de Beauharnais in favor of marrying a new woman, Duchess Marie Louise of Parma. A different Marie! As consolation, Emperor Napoleon left Marie Walewska and their son a large estate in the Kingdom of Naples. He also left her a massive residence at the Rue de Montmorency palace, replete with brand new furniture and accoutrements!
After Marie Walewska’s death in December of 1817, her entire estate was sold in an auction. And this is exactly where the old French woman at the antique shop explained that she purchased the grand Louie XVI Armoire! It didn’t take much more convincing and within a few hours, the armoire was in a shipping container and on its way across the Atlantic to City Schemes in Somerville, MA.
As we are walking out of City Schemes, we ask how long they plan on keeping the armoire. We are told that the armoire has found its final home and that they don’t ever see selling the piece. After all, this antique has been with the store since its inception. Not only is it extraordinarily beautiful to look at, it’s just one more excuse to tell a great story!